Democrats ready to pounce on Trump missteps with Putin – Washington Examiner
When President Trump holds his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday, he will not only be dealing with high-stakes international issues but also will be under intense political scrutiny at home.
Any sign of weakness from Trump in his meeting with Putin will open him up to criticism from Democrats, many of whom steadfastly believe the president at least partially owes his election to Russian hacking last year, and Russia hawks in his own party, many of whom have been concerned about his desire for an opening with Moscow.
Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been described as a “cloud” over the White House by Trump himself. The matter is being investigated by a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department and multiple congressional committees.
Democrats have been searching for evidence of collusion between the Russians who hacked into their party leaders’ emails and the Trump campaign. Top congressional Democrats pressed Trump on Thursday to raise the issue in his meeting with Putin and forthrightly condemn any election inference by Moscow.
“The integrity of our democracy and the security of the free world depend on the United States stopping Russia’s unchecked assault on our election systems,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “President Trump needs to confront Putin for hacking our democratic systems and make it clear the United States will not tolerate further meddling.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined four other Democratic senators in writing a letter making similar request of Trump, demanding the president “make absolutely clear that Russian interference in our democracy will in no way be tolerated.”
“We believe it is crucial for you — as president of the United States — to raise this matter with President Putin and to ensure that he hears you loud and clear — interfering in our elections was wrong in 2016 and it will not be permitted to happen again,” the senators wrote. “We urge you to raise this matter with President Putin later this week. President Putin must understand this can never happen again.”
Trump was noncommittal Thursday, again expressing less than wholehearted support for the intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia was behind the election-year hacking of the Democratic National Committee and others.
“Well, I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people and other countries,” the president said at a news conference in Poland. “It could have been a lot of people interfered.”
Trump didn’t directly disagree with the assessment that it was Russia, but he also pointed out that the intelligence community once appeared certain there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“Guess what? That led to one big mess,” Trump said. “They were wrong, and it led to a mess.”
This drew the kind of harsh criticism Trump can expect if Putin is seen as gaining the upper hand in their meeting.
“The president’s comments today, again casting doubt on whether Russia was behind the blatant interference in our election and suggesting — his own intelligence agencies to the contrary – that nobody really knows, continue to directly undermine U.S. interests,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement. “This is not putting America first, but continuing to propagate his own personal fiction at the country’s expense.”
Schiff is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and has doggedly pursued the Russia probe, often making unfavorable comments about Trump in the process.
The media reacted similarly. “A trashing of the American press corps and Intel community in Eastern Europe of all places,” tweeted NBC’s Chuck Todd. “Could Putin have asked for anything more?”
“If you are a Republican elected official waking up to Trump’s unwillingness to say Russia hacked the election, better to go back to bed,” tweeted CNN’s Chris Cillizza.
“For Russia, Trump-Putin meeting is a sure winner,” the New York Times declared in a headline.
A former Republican national security official saw the matter differently, pointing to Trump’s military action in Syria and stands the president took as recently as his Thursday speech in Poland that were unlikely to please Putin.
“Trump doesn’t like the Russian election interference being used to delegitimize his win,” the official said. “He also sees the constant questions about whether he thinks Russia is behind the hacking as the media getting him to try to play along with it.”
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran— and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” Trump declared Thursday.
Officials who were seen as relatively favorable to Russia, like former national security adviser Mike Flynn, are out. Officials who are more critical of Moscow, like new national security adviser H.R. McMaster and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, are ascendant inside the administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has overcome a reputation for friendship with Russia to speak unfavorably about Putin’s government’s actions abroad.
Even some Democrats have conceded that Russia may not be as potent a political issue as they thought after a series of special-election losses.
“The fact that we had spent so much time talking about Russia has you know, has been a distraction from what should be the clear contrast between Democrats and the Trump agenda, which is on economics,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last month, the day after Democrats lost in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
“I seriously doubt Trump is too worried about what the Democrats are emphasizing politically right now,” said Christian Ferry, a Republican strategist. “If they were able to win a special election, maybe it would be worth some consideration, but we’ve seen multiple times that the Democrats’ concerns are not the same as the American people’s.”
Still, Trump is in unusual political territory as he approaches his meeting with Putin. An Economist/YouGov poll taken in December found that 52 percent of Democrats believed Russia probably or definitely tampered with the vote results to get Trump elected, with slightly more believing this was definitely true (17 percent) than definitely not true (16 percent).
That was before Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe and Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel and before Hillary Clinton laid out her theory of how her opponents at home could have colluded with the Russians to deny her the presidency.
An NPR/PBS News/Marist poll conducted this month found that 54 percent believed Trump’s dealings with Russia were “illegal” or “unethical.” Only 36 percent said he had done nothing wrong, a tick below his national job approval ratings.
While there is a huge partisan divide in those numbers, with 80 percent of Democrats convinced the president acted unethically or illegally, 58 percent of independents agree. Numbers like those, along with Republican elected officials’ misgivings about improving relations with Putin, have Democrats seeing an opening. Whether particular aides, like Kremlin critic Fiona Hill, will attend the Putin meeting has received unusual attention (she won’t).
Trump is the third consecutive president who has met with Putin with the hope of tamping down tensions with Russia and cooperating on thorny international issues. Neither former President George W. Bush nor former President Barack Obama was successful — and neither faced the same political pressures at home while trying.
Powered by WPeMatico